Editor’s Note: Edith Bracho-Sanchez is a primary care pediatrician, director of pediatric telemedicine and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Soon, parents across the country may finally have the option to vaccinate their young kids against Covid-19. Pfizer and BioNTech announced Tuesday they are requesting emergency use authorization for their Covid-19 vaccine for children ages 6 months to 5 years, signaling the potential arrival of a vaccine for this age group in the weeks to come, pending review of the safety and efficacy data.
What feels to many parents like long-awaited news has others thinking long and hard about the choice ahead of them. Currently, only three in 10 parents say they’ll get their child under the age of 5 vaccinated as soon as possible when a Covid-19 vaccine is authorized, according to the most recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
As a pediatrician, I find this response disheartening. As a new mom to a beautiful boy who will be 6 months this March, I understand this parental concern. I have come to accept that worrying is part of being a parent, and despite being well versed in the science, I too have paused to ask myself whether I’m ready to give my baby the Covid-19 vaccine. My most important job as a mama is, after all, keeping him safe.
Knowing then, that some of us may be torn by the choice ahead of us, but that all of us want to keep our children safe, I want to share with you a few of the things that are bringing me comfort as the Covid-19 vaccine for young children makes its way through the regulatory process.
The context of childhood vaccinations
Few things in this world are inspected and monitored as closely as childhood vaccinations, and for good reason. Vaccines, unlike drugs to treat illnesses, are given to healthy children in order to keep them healthy. Because of this, the standard for safety and efficacy that vaccines must clear for approval is incredibly high.
When it comes to the Covid-19 vaccines specifically, we have had so much collective experience with their safety and efficacy. To date, over 317 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been given in the United States alone and the vast majority have been tolerated with no significant problems.
I have also found it helpful to remember that following vaccination, immunity lasts in the body but the vaccine itself does not. Many parents have shared with me their concerns about the long-term effects of the vaccine on their kids’ development, future fertility and growth. I often explain the vaccine is a type of brief message to tell the body to make the protection against the virus, and once received and acted upon, the body destroys the message.
In other words, the vaccine ingredients are broken down and are not present at a concentration or duration that could interfere with children’s development or fertility, nor have these ingredients themselves ever been found to do so.
The process of approval for vaccines
In what can at times be an overwhelming stream of news, it can be hard to keep track of just how thorough the vaccine review and approval process is in this country.
Before a pharmaceutical company can receive emergency use authorization for a vaccine, trial participants are observed for an average of two months. I find this wait requirement particularly reassuring. In decades past, when a vaccine was found to cause a rare but potentially serious side effect, it occurred within the six-week period following vaccination. The two-month average wait period is therefore a way to ensure these potential side effects have had enough time to manifest themselves before the regulators even examine the data.
Once the data is submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration, it is reviewed by the agency’s independent Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) and, if appropriate, the vaccine is given EUA. From there it goes to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where yet another group of independent experts, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), examine it and make recommendations about how the vaccine should be administered to the American public. Typically, the CDC director will accept the committee’s recommendation.
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Behind the long names and acronyms, these committees are made up of some of the most brilliant scientific minds of our time, which gives me yet another reason to believe in the process.
The vaccinations children routinely receive have all been through this process over the years and have been shown to be safe and effective. This has until now led me to vaccinate my son as soon as he has been eligible against illnesses like hepatitis B, diphtheria, polio, whooping cough and others. As the Covid-19 vaccine makes its way through the regulatory process in the coming weeks, I hope to be able to tune out the noise, to set aside any anxiety and, with as clear a mind as a new mom can have, know that the FDA and CDC recommendations will be grounded in facts and made by those who have worked diligently for decades to protect our kids from potentially serious and at times deadly illnesses. I can only wish the same for you.